Are Schools Setting Achievement Goals Based on a Student's Race?

It would be tough to find a slope that's potentially more slippery than this one: public schools setting different achievement expectations for students based on their race and ethnicity.

But that's exactly what's happening in dozens of states that have received waivers from the U.S. Department of Education, allowing them to replace the more onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind with more flexible accountability measures. NCLB's core premise was that all students - regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic, or special-education status - would have to be proficient in reading, writing, and math by the 2013-14 academic year. States were given leeway in setting their definitions of proficiency, and in deciding how best to move students toward the final goal.

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But with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act more than seven years overdue (and a congressional stalemate unlikely to be resolved anytime soon), U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan began authorizing waivers. In exchange, states agreed to adopt specific reform measures that were in line with President Obama's education reform agenda, and to establish accountability measures for charting student progress.

So far 34 states and the District of Columbia have been granted NCLB waivers, and were permitted to reset the achievement bar for academic performance. And now it gets tricky: While all individual students are ostensibly still expected to reach proficiency in core subjects, some states have adjusted their "annual measurable objectives" for schools so that the percentage of students that must show progress on standardized tests varies by race and ethnic group. In Florida, for example, 90 percent of Asian students, 88 percent of whites, 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of blacks will be expected to demonstrate proficiency on the state's reading assessments by 2018. A similar sliding scale has been set for mathematics.

Supporters of such measures contend this approach is the only realistic path to wide-scale school improvement. Critics argue that lower expectations for minority students will ultimately translate into lower outcomes.

Drawing particularly fierce opposition was Virginia's initially proposed new policy, which would have required just 57 percent of black students to be proficient in math by 2017. An early critic was Andy Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that focuses on improving opportunities for low-income students.Writing in the Washington Post, Rotherham argued that the "debilitating message" the Dogwood State was sending to students, parents, and educators was "together but unequal." (The U.S. Department of Education has since ruled that Virginia's policy went too far and worked with the state to renegotiate a more ambitious plan.)

Here's what we do know: There is a stubborn achievement gap for Hispanic students and black students nationwide. In turn, that's translated into an opportunity gap. Minority students are not just scoring lower than their white peers on high-stakes tests; they are also getting less access to the most qualified teachers, the best schools, and the most expansive academic opportunities.

So, how did addressing those gaps translate into resetting the achievement bar by student ethnicity? When Congress was still actively debating the ESEA reauthorization back in 2010, theEducation Trust, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., proposed a comprehensive set of recommendations. Those included a requirement that states cut in half the gap between where each group of students start and 100 percent proficiency within six years, and to aim to reduce their student achievement gaps by 50 percent. While the reauthorization stalled, the U.S. Department of Education decided to include "cut the gap in half" as one of the options states could choose to satisfy the accountability requirement of the waiver application process.

Some states are hewing closely to the Ed Trust's original blueprint. Others have appropriated the name but are not operating within the initiative's suggested framework. (More on that problem in a just a moment.)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaking at Ed Trust's recent national conference in Washington, D.C., praised the organization for taking the lead in developing the "cut the gap in half" approach, calling it "very ambitious" but "also achievable."

I spoke with Amy Wilkins, Ed Trust's vice president for government affairs, who said she's keenly aware that "when you put race and education in the same sentence and it gets volatile pretty quick -- but the fact is unless we set higher goals for kids of color, and demand quicker progress, we're never going to close that gap. And that means we have to name it, we can't pretend that all kids start and the same point and that everything is OK."

The Ed Trust-endorsed blueprint calls for schools to set expectations that students of color show greater -- and faster -- progress than what's expected of their white classmates. While the final goal remains eliminating the gap entirely, Ed Trust argues that it makes more sense to set a realistic course for schools to chart over the next six years.

"Students of color start further behind, and even if they make more progress they're still going to be behind at the end of six years," Wilkins said. "But by 2018, the gap could be half of what it is today. If school and states are doing what they need to do, they'll be educating these kids better than they ever have before."

Wilkins estimated that there are about 15 states that have set up parameters that align with Ed Trust's recommendations. But on the flipside, there are probably an equal number of states that claim their policies are intended to "cut the gap in half," but "that's not what they're doing at all," Wilkins said. "We're working with state-based education reform groups and state and local chapters of national civil rights groups to help them know what's real and what's faux."

An example of a state that has set up appropriate goals for specific ethnic groups -- at least in Ed Trust's view -- is Florida, Wilkins said. What remains to be determined is the state's plan for boosting achievement of Latino, Black and low-income students, and what consequences those schools will face if they fall short.

With the exception of a tiny percentage of students with cognitive disabilities, "We believe all students can achieve at high levels," Wilkins said. "What's holding them back is they're being poorly served by their schools. Students from low-income families and students of color get less of everything that matters."

In the wake of the debate over the waivers, Wilkins said she's "keenly aware" that there are misunderstandings about what "cut the gap in half" is seeking to accomplish. The revised goals, Wilkins said, are to "hold school and districts accountable for accelerating academic progress, not diminishing expectations for any individual students or groups of students."

I put the question of states adjusting expectations based on a student's ethnicity to Carla O'Connor, an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan. O'Connor, who specializes in African-American student achievement and urban education, said the new sliding bar for expectations is a huge step backward.

"No Child Left Behind presumed that all students would be able to learn and perform at similar levels - the current efforts suggest that not all kids have that ability, and we shouldn't even try," O'Connor said. "Once we shift to different standards, we're institutionalizing the notion that's not even feasible."

O'Connor said there's another problem to consider. The standards as they currently exist were already "pitching relatively low," O'Connor said. "The tests we're using aren't capturing higher-ordered thinking. These are basic-level skills and now we're saying we don't think certain populations of students can even meet those expectations."

To be sure, states will have to tread carefully to ensure that equity isn't a casualty of the reconfigured standards for student achievement. At the same time, the debate over how to define that achievement -- and whether students in traditionally underserved populations might actually benefit from a sliding scale of expectations -- is just getting started.

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.